100 years later, mystery surrounds veteran who was credited with a first for America
By DAVE SUTOR | The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. | Published: February 5, 2018
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — A century ago today, reports ran in multiple newspapers across the country that credited a Cambria County resident with earning a unique recognition in World War I history.
The article, which was a little more than 50 words, started with: “To Johnstown, Pa. goes the honor of being the home town of the first American soldier to kill a German after Pershing’s men formally went into the trenches,” according to the version that appeared in Philadelphia’s Public Ledger on Feb. 5, 1918. He was then incorrectly identified as Herbert Sleigh.
His name was actually Herbert Seigh.
Information provided by Cambria County’s Veteran Services Office shows Seigh was born on Feb. 19, 1892, died on Oct. 2, 1955, and served in the Army during a two-year period that included the United States’ involvement in the conflict. His obituary in The Tribune-Democrat identified him as a World War I veteran but did not make any reference to the reported historic event.
The National World War I Museum and Memorial does not have evidence to verify or refute the claim.
Support comes from 1918 reports.
On the same day as the brief about Seigh, the Public Ledger ran a journal entry from W.H. Ross, who identified himself as “A California boy with the American Army in France.” Ross stated Seigh (misidentified as Sleigh), a sergeant major, saw a German walk along the edge of nearby woods.
Seigh reportedly shot the man from a distance of 1,400 yards, using a telescopic sight, with the distance calculated by an artillery observer in an airplane.
Ross concluded: “Pretty good for Johnstown, huh?”
His journal entry was dated Jan. 17, meaning the incident possibly took place in the weeks leading up to that date.
Then, on Feb. 12, 1918, The Tribune, a predecessor to The Tribune-Democrat, published Seigh’s photo and a story about his accomplishment, while mentioning there was “no official word yet.” The author pointed out Seigh, the son of Frank and Elizabeth Seigh of Horner Street, had a reputation locally for being a “good shot.”
Seigh was mentioned for the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration used during World War I and again in World War II. With more than 2 million citations having been made, verifying who received the cross can be challenging. No official record could be immediately obtained to prove Seigh got the honor.
But a photo – in the Oct. 13, 1918, edition of The New York Times that is archived at the Library of Congress’ website – shows him wearing a medal that resembled the Croix de Guerre. The cutline indicated he received a decoration on April 23 and two on April 26, 1918.
So, was Seigh actually the first American to kill a German after Americans officially went into the trenches?
Tough to tell.
“It’s never as simple as people might think,” Mike Vietti, director of communications for the National World War I Museum and Memorial, said.
The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 and Austria-Hungary in December 1917. Troops were present in Europe in early 1918, so Vietti said “the timing makes sense” when discussing Seigh’s reported shot.
But was Ross’ account accurate? Did some other unreported altercation take place that involved an American killing a German?
“There are just so many factors involved there,” Vietti said.
Determining if such an incident occurred would be “challenging in modern times, let alone 100 years ago,” as explained by Vietti.
What is known is that Seigh was one of 4,714 identified Cambria County residents who served in the military between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918, the nation’s official period of involvement in World War I, according to the county’s Veterans Grave Registry.
Until Josh Hauser, the Veteran Services Office director, recently learned about Seigh’s possible spot in history, “He was really just a card in a file. There was no real denotation that stood out.”
Six residents – all members of the Army – made such significant contributions that they earned posthumous induction into the Cambria County Military Hall of Fame.
Privates Joseph Lukaz (South Fork), Franklin McVicker (Portage), Pit Sikivica (Johnstown) and Tony Galka (Barnesboro), along with Corp. Eugene McIntyre (Johnstown) all earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest military award that is given for extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat with an armed enemy.
Maj. Gen. Charles Thomas Menoher (Johnstown) commanded the 42nd Infantry Division, also known as the Rainbow Division, in France during the war.
“Gen. Menoher is a name unto himself, but the other five guys I think are very interesting because they all did something extraordinary to me,” said Marty Kuhar, a local military historian.
With this year being the 100th anniversary of the conflict’s conclusion, Memorial Day activities at Sandyvale Memorial Gardens and Conservancy and Johnstown’s Veterans Day parade will have World War I themes, according to Kuhar. 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial veterans committee also wants to install a plaque honoring county residents who died during the war inside the facility.
So far, Hauser’s office has found 126 registry cards for county residents who died while in service during World War I, counting those killed in action or struck down by the influenza epidemic.
©2018 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.)
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